It was just another talk show on German television dealing with the question whether or not Islam is violent. Terror in God’s name – does Islam have a violence problem? was the title of the show hartaberfair that was broadcast Monday evening by the first German TV channel (ARD). It was definitely not the first time this topic had been addressed in German public, but it always guarantees strong emotions, heated discussions, and large audience figures. A lot of the things had been said before a hundred of times. Yes, we know there is violence in many sacred Scriptures, including the Bible and the Qur’an. And please, don’t say it again, we know not all Muslims are terrorists, really. Actually only very few are.
From left to right: Abdassamad El-Yazidi (Central Council of Muslims in Germany), Holger Münch (Federal Criminal Police Office) and Constantin Schreiber (Journalist)
There were, however, some more interesting aspects to this show, including an interview with a former German Salafist who wrote a book about his personal story of radicalisation. What stood out to me was his search for identity that left him vulnerable to the simple answers the Salafists gave him when they knocked on his door one day. A common thread running through many stories of radicalised youths are broken families, alcoholism, lacking success in school and professional life. The show featured a study by the German Federal Criminal Police Office which examined the life stories of 24 right-wing extremists, 9 left-wing extremists and 6 Islamists. All these stories had a very similar background of divorce, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and difficulties in school. The conclusion of the study was surprising: “Which kind of extremism these people eventually end up in is sheer coincidence. (…) An Islamist from Dinslaken might just as well have become a right-wing extremist in Saxony or a left-wing extremist in certain parts of Berlin or Hamburg.”
A main argument that was brought up frequently was the difference between the scriptures and their respective interpretation. According to this view, it does not matter whether or not the Qur’an contains or promotes violence. What does matter, however, is the way the Qur’an is interpreted by Muslim scholars, commentators, muftis or Islamists. Michael Wolffsohn, historian and writer, sees the problem in a literal interpretation of the text. He admitted that extrem violence can be found in the Hebrew Bible (more or less the Protestant Old Testament), but the Jewish tradition distanced itself from these narratives over the course of the centuries. However, he criticized that in the Muslim world this process has not fully taken place yet. The struggle against radical movements such as Salafism has to be fought from within the Muslim community, insisted German journalist Constantin Schreiber, who lived in the Arab world for many years. Only Muslims themselves could effectively prevent their brethren from radicalisation and the grip of terrorist groups.
Egyptian journalist Amr Adeeb exploded in front of the cameras in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. “I know that the truth is inconvenient for many people. Many will say: These (terrorists) are not Muslims. They are not from us. But they are Muslims, they are from us. From us. (…) It comes from Islam. They have it from Islam. There are movements within Islam that allow these kind of deeds. (…) Those (terrorists) have no scrupels in killing all of us. They have no limits.”
Abdassamad El-Yazidi of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany disagreed strongly with this position, adding that if we followed this generalisation, every present person would be counted a terrorist. Why? “If we compare our Holy Scriptures (i.e. Christian and Muslim) which these terrorists refer to we’ll find a lot of common ground.” True. What was probably more fascinating to the German public was the outburst of an Egyptian journalist in his very own country. What he said about Islam as a religion in this short episode might have been his death sentence in Pakistan. It demonstrates, however, that the ever recurring debates about Islam and violence are not just taking place in Europe, but also in the Islamic world.
As is mostly the case with this kind of talk shows, there are no real results. Many of the topics touched on are way to complex to deal with in 90 minutes. I am convinced that it is of utmost importance in these troubled days to continue and even intensify the dialogue within the Muslim community and between Muslims and non-Muslims. We should never allow the terrorists to engage us in an all-out religious war. We need to address problematic tendencies and movements and crack down on extremism while remaining a liberal democracy with individual freedoms for all those who will not abuse them. This is a difficult task indeed.